Interview with Becki Elkins, Ph.D. - Program Director for the Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

About Becki Elkins, Ph.D.: Becki Elkins is the Program Director for the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse’s (UWL) Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership. As Program Director, she facilitates faculty oversight of the structure and content of the Ed.D. program’s curriculum, manages student recruitment and admissions, and also coordinates student advising and mentorship in the program. In addition, she works with the department chair to hire and support adjunct faculty and provide them with guidance as they in turn mentor students through their coursework. Dr. Elkins teaches numerous courses throughout the Ed.D. program, including those on organization and governance as well as policy and regulatory compliance in education.

Prior to her role at UWL, she was director of institutional research and assessment at Cornell College and an adjunct faculty member at The University of Iowa. She also taught courses at Kirkwood Community College and New England College, and oversaw the Gender Issues Education Services office at Texas A&M University. Her areas of research interest include substance abuse recovery experiences amongst college populations, the intersections between social class, student success, and student services, and leadership through advocacy and activism. Dr. Elkins earned her Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a focus on Public Relations from The University of Kansas, her Master of Science in Professional Studies in Education from Iowa State University, and her Ph.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Research from The University of Iowa.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse’s Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students optimally for roles in academic leadership, education systems improvement, change management, and social justice?

[Dr. Elkins] For the Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership, we indicate that our mission is to prepare student affairs professionals for senior level leadership in a wide array of institutional types. When you look at the learning outcomes for the program specifically, in general what we are attempting to do with the curriculum is to provide a greater depth of knowledge about how organizations work, about how administrations work, about governance, policies, and other types of information that prepare students for leadership that is connected to equity, diversity, and inclusion. We aim to help them create a unified approach to governing student affairs.

One of the ways that we attend to that particular outcome of educational equity and diversity, is that we make it specifically a focus of our curriculum. We have a course that is called Critical Analysis of Systemic Inequities in Education: Challenges of Social Justice, and that course is obviously very focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion. But in addition to that, the remainder of our courses embed this lens into them. For instance, I teach Organization and Governance, one of the very first courses that students take, and we use traditional organizational theory and simultaneously we use critical theory to analyze those theories. We’re looking at issues of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia and how they are systemic to organizations, and ways in which we can disrupt that. Those ideas are infused throughout the curriculum so that when they engage in their leadership work, our students are prepared to have addressing inequalities and fostering diversity be key elements in their leadership work.

Another key learning outcome that we expect for our students is a solid understanding of both research and assessment so that students know how to conduct assessments and interpret their results. Through the course Assessment and Program Evaluation, students learn how to not only conduct assessments, but also craft a division-wide approach to thinking about assessment and how to use that to inform their practice. Combined with the courses in Qualitative Research Methods, Qualitative Research Methods, and the Dissertation Planning Workshop, students gain a strong foundation in all the skills, methodologies, and practices and processes that are essential to completing their dissertation.

We also talk a lot about interpersonal dynamics and having capacity to navigate political and cultural implications in organizations. In the courses such as Organizational Communication and Supervision and Human Resource Management, students learn how to effectively supervise and work with folks to build teams that are effective. All of those items then are also embedded in the curriculum and are part of the intended learning for our doctoral students.

When you look at our curriculum for the program, you also see courses such as 21st Century Learners, in which students examine and discuss information about students and learning environments. We also have Finance and Budgeting, Strategic Planning and Managing Change, Enrollment Management, and Policy and Regulatory Compliance. These are really specific courses designed to empower folks to take what they have learned and use it in the field at the moment, and to continue building and iterating on it both while they’re in the program and far beyond. Our program is very focused on practitioners, and all the course readings, discussions, and assignments are designed with that practical perspective in mind. For instance, in Enrollment Management, one of the key assignments for students is learning how to create, evaluate, critique, and/or improve their institution’s strategic enrollment management plan. During my time at the helm of this program, I’ve found it truly fascinating to look, not only at the curriculum as a whole and how it progresses, but also how within each course students take the grounding theories and methodologies and apply them to their unique situations on their respective campuses.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse’s Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Elkins] As a university system, the University of Wisconsin system recently transitioned all of its online programs to Canvas. We have found this system to be fairly intuitive for students. The ways in which we do discussions really varies from instructor to instructor. When I first came to the University of Wisconsin four years ago, the thinking in our department was more of the standard post once, reply twice kind of discussion model. And for me personally, that doesn’t really work for my style. We all talked about opening the door to letting faculty do different ways of discussion. In my course for instance, I do a mix of weekly or sometimes biweekly discussions, using both synchronous and asynchronous elements. For example, I am currently teaching Policy and Regulatory Compliance at the moment, and at the beginning of the semester we had a synchronous group session where I gave two different options and students could choose one of the two times to attend.

Outside of synchronous discussion sections, the rest of students’ course participation comes from either large group discussions or small group discussions, and those are just written asynchronously on a discussion forum. As the instructor I’ll ask a question or highlight something from the readings of that week, and then let students write and respond. And then at the end of the semester we’ll do another synchronous discussion where we’re all together.

For other faculty, student discussions are conducted solely through discussion boards. So there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of how we conduct discussion, and we as a faculty team try to figure out what works best for a given course topic, what works best for the faculty member(s) teaching that course, and what works for the specific group of students. And all of that changes, so our faculty also know that we need to be flexible.

We use a cohort model, so students move through the curriculum together in a group. For instance, right now what we do for our second year doctoral students is different from what we do for our first year doctoral students simply because they have different needs and different preferences. If I had to describe our online learning environment and our approach to online education in this program, I would say that it is very flexible and dynamic, and tailored to the students we are teaching and where they are at in the program.

[] Students of the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse’s Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership must complete a Dissertation as their final graduation requirement. What does the Dissertation entail, what are its required deliverables, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do students receive during their work?

[Dr. Elkins] We use what we call an embedded dissertation model. With most doctoral programs, students take all their coursework, and they hit a point where they need to pass their comprehensive examinations, and once they do that, they progress to their dissertation, wherein they work largely independently on their research project. We don’t do that at all–in fact, we flip the model on its head. In the first year of their enrollment in our program, we are having our students think about what they might want to study for their dissertation, and we coach them from the beginning of the program in terms of how to think about and frame their research question and their research processes.

Through our advising appointments and in our courses, from the very beginning we have surface level conversations with students about what they are interested in and what they are curious about. Then in the second year during the summer term, students take a Dissertation Planning course, the sole focus of which is their dissertation. The goal of this course is to support students as they complete their literature review and develop their research question. Students also determine who their faculty chairs for their dissertation are. Up to that point all students have an individual faculty advisor, and sometimes their dissertation chair is the same person, but a lot of times it is not because students’ start to really evolve their research interests to the point that they need to choose a chair who has research expertise in their desired area of study.

Sitting alongside that course is a one-credit optional course, which is called a Writing Retreat. Typically, this course is a four-day weekend retreat held in La Crosse on campus. We generally subsidize and/or pay for students’ travel to the retreat, and we also provide their housing and meals. It is optional because we recognize that some people can’t get away from their work or their family obligations, and we’ve made a commitment to never requiring that students be on campus as it is an entirely online program. But this writer’s retreat focuses on helping students hone their writing skills and to really think about their identity as writers, which complements the Dissertation Planning course while also giving students broadly applicable writing strategies and skills.

The following fall, students take a Dissertation Seminar course, which is where students work closely with their chair and begin to work on their dissertation. There is an instructor in this seminar course, but students are also working very closely with their dissertation committee chair that whole semester. The purpose of this fall semester is for students to write the first three chapters of their dissertation–the introduction, the literature review, and the methods sections. By the end of that semester in January, we want students to be ready to defend their dissertation proposal, which means also during that semester they will have identified the other people on their committee. Students’ faculty committees are comprised of not only their chair, but also two additional faculty members who provide students with support and feedback during their work on their dissertation.

One of the things that makes our program unique is that, while the committee faculty members have to be part of the graduate faculty team at UWL, we also have the flexibility to allow students to bring an expert from outside of UWL, pending department approval. If students have a person either on their campus or in student affairs or higher education with whom they have some sort of connection or there’s some sort of logical reasoning why that person would make sense for their committee, then we propose to have those folks be considered members of the UWL graduate faculty. As Director of the program, I help coordinate this and while it ends up being a bit of paperwork it also means that students can have someone they have really connected with and who can really contribute to their dissertation work on their committee. Dissertation committees are often comprised of three folks. A tenure-track faculty at UWL in our department must be the chair, and then the other two members could be other faculty from our department, or folks in other areas of the country who have some connection to the topic.

We use virtual synchronous video technologies to hold students’ dissertation proposal defenses and final defenses. Students complete their dissertation proposal defense in the fall of their second year. In the spring of their second year, students are getting their IRB approval and are starting to collect data. Some of them are already starting to analyze their data. Both the spring and the summer they just take just two courses, as they are working on their dissertations independently with support from their committee. And in the last two semesters of their third year, students have one class and then three dissertation credits where they’re just working with their chair on finalizing their dissertation. Ultimately, they have 11 dissertation credits, and the writing retreat credit is an additional one credit. So overall, 12 credits of the 54 credit program are focused on the dissertation.

In terms of dissertation topics, they have been very interesting and highly individualized. We have a wide range of interests and research foci that students have undertaken for their dissertation. For example, I have a student who is an athletic director for a Division III institution and he did a study of Division III student athletes and their perceptions of Title IX (which is a federal regulation mandating that male and female athletes have equal opportunity to receive federal funds and scholarships from educational institutions). He found out that, while men and women unsurprisingly have different perspectives on Title IX, there was not really any literature on students’ perspectives. He has since been presenting his research to other athletic directors, sharing this information and also encouraging them to ask the question, “What sorts of educational things do we need to be doing around Title IX for our student athletes?”

We have a student who works in academic affairs who conducted a content analysis of 16 different institutions’ admissions landing sites for students, looking at the language around high-impact practices and how far a prospective student has to go to find out about these high-impact practices–and in particular how that works (or does not work) for first-generation students. Due to the nature of her study, this student’s project involved doing content analysis of websites.

We had another student whose study looked at the role parents play in the decisions that students from working class backgrounds make related to their higher education interests. She was very interested in the family dynamics that impacted educational decision-making. We have a student who is looking at recovery programs on college campuses, and the ways in which recovery programs do and don’t support student success. We have another student who is conducting research on the experiences of Native American students who transfer from a two-year tribal college to a four-year predominantly white institution and what the experiences of those students are and how educational institutions can better support these individuals on their educational journeys. These projects often have a strong social justice element to them.

We have a student who works in admissions and is very interested in understanding why out-of-state students make the decision to attend a school outside of their state of residence. There is peripheral information about that, but there is not much focus on their experiences and their thought processes. We also have a student who wonders what sort of impact low or dual credit enrollment has on low-income students in the state of Texas, and so she’s actually working with high schools to get her data set, and thinking about how dual credit can reinforce inequities rather create a more equitable education system.

We also have students who are looking at the experiences of Latinx males on campuses all over the south and southeast areas in America. As a faculty member, it’s really fascinating to watch people come up with their topics and see what interests them and what their passions are, as they truly run the whole gamut. It has also been very interesting to see how students apply different lenses to their research–they have a regional or cultural or sociopolitical or disciplinary focus, and then there is a “this is part of my job” focus that they also apply, and the interplay between those two is very interesting to see play out in their dissertations.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse’s Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while they are enrolled?

[Dr. Elkins] One of the things that makes us a really good fit for students who opt to come here is that we tend to believe in the importance of being high touch. Not to the point of being overbearing, but understanding that students benefit from structured support systems as well as one-on-one mentorship from faculty who really care about their academic and professional journeys.

From the very beginning, we start our students with an orientation program. The faculty are very involved in that online orientation program, and one of our primary objectives during that time is trying to build a strong community from the beginning. We’re trying to get them connected with one another. We’re trying to make sure that they’re familiar with us and that they feel comfortable talking with us. Each student has an advisor when they come into the program, before they select their chair.

I know of some programs where the program director just serves in that role as a mentor to all the students in the program. We actually don’t do that. We make sure that they have a specific advisor. This gives students more face time with a faculty member who can support them. We also spread the advising load out among all the faculty members and give them guidance in terms of how often they should be connecting with their advisees. So we take that faculty mentorship piece very seriously. As Director, during the summer I reach out to all our faculty members and remind them to get in touch with their group of student advisees, and to also offer my support as they work with each of their students.

We try to lay that foundation of mentorship, support, and strong community before we even get to a point where they’re selecting chairs. We try to have the courses laid out such that they have had each of us in class before they are selecting their chairs. And it is interesting, we have four core tenured faculty members in the program who serve as dissertation chairs for our students, and we all four have very different mentorship styles. I am probably the most laid back of the group in that I generally say, “Here’s what I think is probably a good strategy, but you do you and we’ll figure out how to make it work.” I think students are finding that when I say, “We should probably meet regularly,” that helps them stay on track. I’m having more students select that option, but I don’t require it.

There are other faculty dissertation chairs who say, “We’re going meet every two weeks and every two weeks you’re going to have something to show me.” And those two different approaches work for different students, and the great thing about our program is that not only are students able to select us based on how we do research and our areas of expertise, but they’re also able to select us based on our mentorship and advising styles. And we make sure that students get exposure to our different mentorship approaches well before they need to choose their dissertation chair, so that they know which dynamic works best for them.

In addition to the mentorship aspect, we have another point person who serves as a resource for students–a writing consultant. We try to get our students connected with her early on, and so that is another area where mentoring takes place. She can provide students with individualized support and feedback on their writing, and she also does instructional videos for us that we make accessible on the online portal.

When I came into this program, I had already done a lot of reading and research on doctoral education, and my faculty teammates and I started off knowing that approximately one out of two doctoral students will finish. And so we asked ourselves, “How do we change that? How do we move that needle?” I think there are two things. One is having that faculty connection early and consistently, and the other is having an embedded dissertation. Instead of tacking the dissertation on at the end of students’ coursework and having them complete it in isolation, having it be more of a community process makes a huge difference. Even though students are working individually, they’re in a class together while working individually on their respective projects, which gives them a strong community aspect in addition to the guidance and support their faculty chair and committee provide. I believe that has been really helpful.

We have our first doctoral cohort that is about to graduate. There are ten students in that cohort. I’m confident that seven of them will graduate in May. Possibly nine of them will graduate in May. I’m very confident that by December they will all have graduated. In a group that started with 11 students, that is an over 90 percent completion rate, and we are seeing that in the second and third years too. To me, that says there’s something about what we are doing that’s working. As a faculty team, the questions we need to ask are, “How can we maintain and build upon our success? How can we sustain these support structures and tailor each student’s experience in the program to their needs?” This is a very exciting time for our program and I’m looking forward to seeing how the next years and cohorts’ journeys unfold.

[] For students interested in the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse’s Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Elkins] First of all, because we’re entirely online, that opens things up to folks in a broader region of the US than just the Upper Midwest–which, as most folks know, is not very diverse. That, in and of itself, helps to open doors for our students that wouldn’t otherwise be there in a more regional, campus-based program. And as the dissertation topics described earlier illustrate, being able to admit students from across the country also means that we have students investigating a much broader range of education challenges that intersect with issues of diversity, of social justice, of understanding and addressing inequities in education and in society at large.

We just admitted our fourth cohort, and with the exception of the second cohort–the first, third, and fourth cohorts all are hovering around between 40 to 50 percent students of color. As is the case in a lot of graduate programs in student affairs, our student body tends to be heavily cis-identified female, though we have seen gender diversity in our cohorts as well. What I think is really important is that because we have diverse groups of students, the learning becomes much richer. The experiences that come to the table are a much broader tableau of experiences. The situations that our students deal with and which they bring to the table are more complex, because it is not just the University of Wisconsin system, or relegated to the schools in our state. It is a much bigger discussion. I feel that this diversity really adds a level of richness to the program that we wouldn’t get if it were simply an on-campus program, or even in this case if it were a partially residential program.

So, how do you put forth a good application? The application includes a series of UW system items that are important to complete, including a CV, the answer to two separate essay prompts, past undergraduate and graduate transcripts, and three letters of reference. While the CV is important, what we really weigh heavily are the personal statement essays and the letters of recommendation.

For the two essays, we ask students fairly simple questions, but questions that seek to get at the heart of why they are applying to our program, and what they hope to achieve through it. The first question asks them to tell us, in essence, what their personal story is, where they’re headed, and how this degree would be useful to them. And then the second prompt asks applicants to tell us about a time they encountered a critical incident in student affairs or higher education and how they think about that experience today, and how pursuing a doctoral degree might help them rethink or reimagine how they would address that situation.

In asking this question, we are primarily interested in students’ thinking, their thought processes around problem solving, and their perspectives as educators. We are also very interested in their writing. We’re looking for a level of depth of understanding of self, a level of depth of understanding their discipline, and their thinking around how pursuing doctoral education will improve their practice. To put a strong application package forward, it is really important to think about those questions, to spend some time thinking about and reflecting on those questions, and writing a well-thought out and cogent response to each of them.

I encourage all prospective students I speak with to make sure someone in a mid or senior level position reads their essay. Have someone read your essays for content, and have another person read it for writing and editing purposes. Strong essays are really important because writing is such an integral part of the doctoral program.

For the letters of reference, I urge students to choose their recommenders very carefully, and to ask well in advance of the application deadline. We read each letter of reference very closely. I tell prospective students to ask someone who can really speak to their abilities and motivation as a learner. That doesn’t mean that they have be a faculty member or they have to have had you in class, but their capacity to have seen you as a practitioner and as someone who’s engaged in learning related to practice is absolutely key.

The other element that I would note as being very important is the interview. Everyone who meets our minimum eligibility threshold is invited to complete an interview with us, and at that point the interview can be the deciding factor. We have had folks who had a strong written application package who didn’t really interview well because they didn’t prepare well for the conversation, and those folks ended up not being admitted. On the flip side, we’ve had applicants who had a middle-of-the-road written application package, but their interview was spot-on, and they ended up gaining admission to the program. The interview can really make or break folks who are particularly in a middle-of-the-road position with their application up until that point, so it behooves all applicants to prepare well for the interview.

[] What makes the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse’s Online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in organizational and academic affairs leadership?

[Dr. Elkins] I would go back to some of the elements I mentioned earlier: the embedded dissertation, the high-touch nature of our program where we prioritize individualized mentorship from the very beginning of the program, and our program’s focus on critical analysis of systemic inequities. I believe we have a lot of students who select our program because of our curriculum’s focus on social justice and the crucial role it plays in building sustainable, efficacious educational systems and organizations. This course content ends up energizing our students in incredible ways, galvanizing them to examine, analyze, and tackle problems or challenges they’ve encountered in their own experiences as practitioners.

The embedded dissertation is very much wrapped up in our mentorship approach in the program, where students have access to faculty advising and guidance from the beginning, but also benefit from synchronous sessions and conversations both in class and outside of class that help them hone their idea of what an ideal mentorship relationship looks like for them. That in turn enables them to assemble the optimal committee for their dissertation, and to subsequently excel in their research work.

We also do an incredible job of creating a community. We are now working on how to build a community across the cohorts, but within each group of 10-15 people in a given cohort, there is a strong sense of connection and camaraderie. It’s been really gratifying to see that sense of community pay off. For instance, I was at an ACPA conference in Nashville several weeks ago, and we had a couple of doctoral students who were there who had never met each other in person. They were so excited to meet each other in person and hung out during the entire conference. To me, that’s an indicator that we are building a strong community in our program, one that is fostered through the synchronous sessions we provide, and the courses where students are all working on their dissertations together and experiencing the same milestones together.

Thank you, Dr. Becki Elkins, for your excellent insight into the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse’s online Ed.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Leadership!